*Full disclosure: I don’t actually know anything about architecture other than old things look pretty. I got all of my architectural facts from Wikipedia.
A huge bonus of living in a European city is having thousands of travel destinations right around the corner. Since our “hometown” of Leipzig is so close to the Czech boarder, my husband Craig and I decided to treat ourselves to a weekend trip to Prague!
Travel and Accommodations
To avoid having to deal with with paid parking, or worse, having our car get broken into, we decided to travel to Prague by train. The ride was fairly long (4 hours), but incredibly scenic. The train ride took us along the Elbe river to Dresden, past a few German castles, all the way to beautiful Prague.
For this trip, we decided to stay at an Airbnb apartment so we could be in the heart of the city without paying the inflated price of a tourist-catering hotel. We stayed in a quaint studio apartment nestled between the train station and Wenceslas Square. The only downside was we visited on the one weekend when it was 97 degrees (36 ºC)! I really could have used an air conditioned Marriott by the end.
One of the nice things about living and traveling in Europe is not having to worry about exchanging money. However, the Czech Republic uses its own monetary system (The Czech Crown), so we didn’t have this luxury when visiting Prague. But if you have to change money, at least you can feel like royalty doing it – the exchange rate was roughly 25 Crowns to 1 USD! However, being so tourist-oriented, many of the city vendors do accept Euros, so if you’d rather feel like a peasant, you could probably get by with Euros and a credit card.
The Beautiful Architecture
Having mostly been spared by the first and second World Wars, much of Prague’s historic architecture remains intact, which is a huge allure for tourists. The city of Prague with its stunning architecture draws in approximately 4.4 million international visitors per year! (According to Wikipedia, that makes it the 5th most visited European city.)
– Old Town Square –
If you’re looking for old buildings, perhaps start in Prague’s famous Old Town Square. Here you will find the Church of Our Lady before Tyn, a Gothic-style Roman Catholic church curiously tucked behind other, less impressive-looking buildings (which we were told actually predate the church). In addition you’ll find the famed Astronomical Clock, dating all the way back to 1410.
The clock, while rated as one of the most disappointing sights in Europe, has to be appreciated in the context of when it was built and the intricacies of what it can tell you. It not only tells time, but it also shows the position of the sun (rotating around the earth, of course), the time of sunset, the current phase of the moon, and the day and month of the year. Sure, it’s hourly chimes may leave something to be desired by the modern man inundated by technology, but put yourself in the shoes of a peasant from the 1500s – and that’s pretty darn cool!
– Prague Castle –
I can’t talk about Prague architecture and not mention Prague Castle. While it’s not quite a picturesque “castle” like Neuschwanstein and more of a royal city within the city, there’s still a lot to see. You certainly can’t miss the elegant St. Vitus Cathedral, an even more impressive specimen of Gothic architecture, complete with flying buttresses.
Though it costs to enter, I suggest that you do check out its stunning interior. Inside you will find colorful stained glass windows, a beautiful pipe organ, and the sparkling silver tomb of St. John of Nepomuk.
Being the largest ancient castle in the world, there is so much more to Prague castle than just the cathedral. Unfortunately for us, we were short on time and could only catch the highlights, so a return trip might be in order. If you are looking for what to do at Prague castle, a more thorough list can be found here.
– The Jewish Quarter –
The marvelous Jewish Quarter (or Josefov) is the area of Prague, resting on inhospitable swampland, where the Jews were forced to live in ghettos. Though partially demolished in the early 1900s, what stands today are beautiful testaments of Jewish perseverance.
Tip: Don’t plan to visit the Jewish Quarter on a Saturday. All Jewish museums are closed for the Sabbath!
If you do just one thing in Prague, visit the Spanish Synagogue. Though relatively recent in Prague’s history (the synagogue was erected in 1868), and only accessible if you buy a ticket for the entire Jewish Quarter, you cannot miss the intricate, colorful details of this Moorish revival synagogue.
While in the Jewish Quarter, be sure to visit the beautiful and humbling Jewish Cemetery. When the Jews were forced to live in the ghetto, they were only granted a small plot of land in which to bury their dead. After the plot was filled, they had to get creative and started layering graves on top of one another. The cemetery is overflowing with gravestones because there are 12 layers of the deceased within its walls. Take a slow walk around the grounds and admire the elaborate details of these monuments to a marginalized people.
(Just a small tip because this caused me a lot of confusion: if you can see the headstones from outside the cemetery, you are at the exit, NOT the entrance. The entrance is at the Pinkas Synagogue.)
Also part of the Jewish Quarter is the oldest European synagogue still in use today, the “Old-New” Synagogue. This building, completed in 1270, is stunning simply because it is still in existence. The Old-New Synagogue is only accessible with an additional ticket, so if you don’t want to pay the extra fee to enter, just watch this short video instead to get a glimpse inside.
– THE Dancing House –
Not all of Prague’s architecture is old. While walking along the Vlatava River, you can’t help but notice this curious modern building known as the Dancing House. Built in 1996, some might regard it as an eye-sore, but it just goes to show you that while deeply rooted in history, Prague is still evolving with the times.
Statues Around the City
In addition to the architecture, one of my favorite aspects of Prague was its many peculiar statues located around the city. Charles Bridge, in particular, is famous for these statues. The bridge is lined mostly with notable Catholic symbols, including one Hebrew Jesus.
We wandered all throughout the city finding strange, interesting characters, like this man traveling to work by umbrella:
…or this curious door filled with tiny heads!
But my favorite of the statues was actually Craig’s surprise for me. After crossing the Charles Bridge towards Prague Castle, he took me on a maze of winding streets to show me something he knew I’d like… a mechanical statue of two men urinating!
After watching those statues pee for a while, I was feeling a bit dehydrated myself (also, remember it was 97º!). So, based on a hot-tip from fellow blogger M.E. Evans of Surviving in Italy, we made our way to Hemingway’s bar. This quiet bar was tucked away from the regular hustle and bustle of tourists and offered an awesome selection of cocktails. Intending to just stay for one drink, we ended up trying a bunch of things on the menu and even tried our first drink of Absinthe. The bartender gave us the weaker “beginner’s Absinthe,” but it was still too reminiscent of licorice for me.
I was much happier sipping on a glass of fine Czech Pilsner. This stuff is everything it’s hyped to be. It’s smooth, refreshing, full of flavor (not like that other “Budweiser”), and not too hoppy. I had my first glass of Czech beer while on the train to Prague, and liked it so much I filled up again on my train ride home from Prague (that last day I drank an entire liter!).
If you are thirsty in the Czech Republic, and are of legal drinking age, grab a Pilsner Urquell; it’s delicious and most likely cheaper than water! I know I’ll certainly be coming back for it!
What’s your favorite part of Prague?